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A Small Word Change In A Missouri Law Means Huge Tuition Hikes For Some Students

Sam Zeff

This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in July 2015.     

There are a few hundred college students in Missouri right now who are trying to figure out how to pay for a 300 percent tuition hike that they found out about two weeks ago.

These are students who were brought here illegally as small children and know no other home but Missouri. Their predicament is all thanks to a small word change ina bill passedin Jefferson City in March. That small change is having a profound effect on some student’s futures.

"Seriously, I was getting not depressed but I just felt like crying. Like almost every hour I would remember and just want to cry and just hold it in," says Alejandra, a junior at UMKC who graduated from Van Horn High School in Independence. 

We’re using her first name because her family moved to the U.S. illegally when she was two, something not too many people know.

Alejandra says she was paying about $5,000 a year in tuition but got a call two weeks ago saying the cost would jump to $14,000. "I received the call and it was just out of nowhere. It really did get me by surprised."

A surprise because the phrase “unlawfully present” was changed to “unlawful immigration status” in a bill funding higher education in Missouri.

Credit Missouri General Assembly
Missouri state Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick is a Republican from Shell Knob.

"If we tell people, okay, yeah, you can bring your children here illegally and then we’ll give them access to state scholarships, we’ll give them in state tuition. I think we’re going to continue to have this problem," says Missouri state Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Shell Knob and the legislator responsible for the small, but sweeping language change. 

The change was aimed at students covered by DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was put into place by an executive order from President Obama.

You may know them by another name, Dreamers.

Essentially, DACA allowed undocumented kids like Alejandra and Yara Puente, to avoid deportation.

Puente says she came to America with her family when she was two. She also graduated in 2012 from Van Horn High School and until DACA she couldn’t get a drivers license, have a job or even go to a Missouri college because she would be charged international tuition, which is even higher than out of state.

So, she went to Johnson County Community College where she paid out-of-state tuition but could at least go to school.

For undocumented students, Puente says, this change in state law is just another hurdle. "Is it really what people want, to give us more obstacles than the ones we’ve already been going through?"

Many DACA students are organizing and fighting back.

The Missouri-Kansas Dream Alliance works with students who were brought here at a very young age. Organizer Robert Sagastume, brought here by his parents from Honduras, says ultimately they want to roll back the legislation. But in the meantime, they’re looking for money to help the DACA students with their huge tuition hikes.

"That way we can perhaps help them somehow to maybe keep at least one class per semester to have them still enrolled within the system so they don’t drop out," says Sagastume.

For Rep. Fitzpatrick it’s less about the money — he admits the change will save the state very little — it's more about what he says is fairness to Missourians who are here legally.

He says the state has already done a lot for these DACA students. "We have probably done our duty to help them by providing them a free K-12 education," he says.

Fitzpatrick also says he would have grandfathered DACA students already in school had anyone in higher education asked him to do so. 

The students say they spent years underground, trying to negotiate work and college and not even letting most of their classmates and teachers know about their status.

Alejandra says she thought DACA freed her from that and says it just feels like Missouri lawmakers are retaliating. "I mean, we’re not doing anything bad. All I do is work and go to school. Literally work. Go to school. And they just want to take that away."

There is some good news for Alejandra and about 30 other DACA students at UMKC.

The university says it found private donations to bridge the gap between the in-state cost and international tuition, but only for the fall. The university says it's now looking for additional money for the spring semester.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis has also told returning DACA students that private donations have been secured to cover tuition increases there.

But what happens to the other DACA students in Missouri as class rapidly approaches is still up in the air.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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